By Alan Levin
The two busiest U.S. airports may have to close runways and limit arriving flights if automatic budget cuts cause furloughs of air-traffic controllers, Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta said.
Huerta’s remarks to a House aviation subcommittee today in Washington dovetailed with forecasts by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association that runway closings in Atlanta, Chicago and Houston would reduce hourly flight arrivals by as much as 37 percent.
Congressional Republicans said the FAA could find other ways to move funds within its budget and trim spending to avoid having to close more than 200 towers and reduce air-traffic services.
“The FAA is going to have to make some tough decisions,” said Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International and Chicago’s O’Hare International, which ranked first and second by departures in the 12 months ended in November, may have to close runways at times, Huerta said.
Hartsfield typically uses three runways for arriving flights, he said. Under some weather conditions, controllers may have to trim arrivals to two runways, he said. When weather or visibility deteriorates, FAA procedures may require more controllers to ensure safety.
O’Hare is a hub for United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL)’s United Airlines, the world’s biggest carrier, and AMR Corp. (AAMRQ)’s American Airlines. Atlanta is Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL)’s largest base and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport is a United hub. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Feb. 22 warned of 90-minute delays in New York and San Francisco as well as Chicago.
Shuster said he is “a little frustrated” with the FAA’s estimates that so-called sequestration would result in delays at major airports starting in April.
The FAA will have to cut $627 million by Sept. 30, Huerta said at the hearing. The only way to reach that level is by subjecting most of the agency’s 47,000 employees to at least one unpaid day off every two weeks, Huerta said.
The agency has already reduced travel, training and consultant contracts, Huerta said. Broader cuts are required to reach the levels needed, he said.
Sequestration will go into effect March 1 if lawmakers can’t agree on a deficit reduction plan. The agency will have to close as many as 238 airport towers at small- and mid-sized airports and begin furloughs in April if no agreement is reached, Huerta said.
O’Hare has two towers to oversee its seven runways. If controllers are furloughed, the agency may have to close one of the towers, which would prohibit flights from using the runway in that area, Huerta said.
“These are the sort of impacts that could result at large airports,” he said.
Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole, testifying to a House Appropriations subcommittee, said the agency may be able to save money by pulling screeners out of some small airports where the FAA plans to close towers, if carriers elect to stop flying there as a result.
“If the airlines aren’t flying, and there’s no FAA, then obviously, there’s no need for TSA security,” Pistole said.
The longer the automatic budget cuts last, the greater the effects, Pistole said. The agency is looking at a hiring freeze and reducing overtime before it institutes furloughs, he said. The impact of reduced overtime would be seen during peak travel times like spring break, the summer and holidays, when TSA increases staffing at checkpoints to speed screening.
“If we’re not paying overtime, then we would not have the ability to surge those resources,” Pistole said.
Shuster and South Dakota Senator John Thune, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, said in an e-mailed statement that the FAA should cut spending from the $500 million allotted for “consultants” before furloughing controllers.
Huerta said that area of the FAA’s budget is for contracts to maintain equipment such as the communication networks controllers use to talk to pilots. It can’t be eliminated without creating new effects on air travel, he said.
Shuster said he wasn’t convinced. “I believe that you will find $30 million a month without the threat of furloughs,” he said.